BONUS: The Prayer : Invisibilia Five years ago, Leena Sanzgiri was living her childhood dream... New York city apartment, job at Vogue, and a boyfriend she planned to marry. Until the July day she woke up in the hospital, and everything changed. Support for this episode provided by Charles Schwab:
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BONUS: The Prayer


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This is INVISIBILIA here with a bonus. I'm Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And I'm Hanna Rosin. We all have childhood memories that we turn over in our minds. There are ones we love, ones we loathe but can't seem to outrun. Either way, these memories stay with us and shape us. This next piece by writer Leena Sanzgiri starts with one of those.

SUNIL: (Foreign language spoken).

LEENA SANZGIRI: That's my dad, Sunil (ph). When I was a kid, he got up every day at 4:30 a.m. to do a Hindu prayer ritual called Puja. He'd light candles, recite Sanskrit verses and place a dot of sacred sandalwood paste on my forehead, my sister's and my mom's while we slept. Then he'd leave for his corporate job.

And when I woke up a half-hour later, I'd look in the mirror with the split consciences of an immigrant kid. I felt guilty for wanting to wash off that sacred mark. But I also want to fit in at school, so I'd rinse the orange paste away.

JYOTI: Sunil always, ever since I've known him, has this thing that everybody should be doing puja every day.

SANZGIRI: And that's my mom, Jyoti (ph). When I was growing up in New Orleans, my parents and their close friends were always worried that my generation would lose our Hindu traditions. So my dad became a sort of Sunday school teacher for 5 Indian families.

And every Monday night at 7 p.m. on the dot, we would get together for prayers and potluck. He decided to translate the difficult Sanskrit text into rhyming English. It was really hard work for him because, as he puts it...

SUNIL: Remember, in those days, you couldn't conveniently pick up a Google handbook and figure out what...

SANZGIRI: A Google handbook.

SUNIL: (Laughter). And figure out what these terms were.

SANZGIRI: I've never come across a Google handbook, either.

SUNIL: (Laughter).

SANZGIRI: My dad in a nutshell - takes himself so seriously, but I can always make him laugh. As a little kid, I loved reciting the translated prayers. It was a fun rhyming game - two lines at a time, not unlike reading the pages of Dick and Jane books projected on the screen in school. For example, these lines - (speaking Sanskrit). And my dad's translation - all of the world is born out of thee. Thy protection causes us upright to be.


SANZGIRI: By my teenage years, it became more complicated. I understood the prayers, but they felt so long. And I mainly prayed for my acne to go away or to win an upcoming debate tournament. Eventually, I was able to recite the Atharvashirsha, a prayer to Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, with my eyes closed. (Speaking Sanskrit) and so on. And then by my 20s, the prayer was just like a reflex. I would say it some nights before bed and when I was home with my family. It would roll off my tongue without thinking.

Five years ago, I was 28, living a version of my childhood dream life. I had a New York City apartment, a job at Vogue magazine and a boyfriend I expected to marry. And then on July 12, 2013, I was out running errands in my neighborhood. I started to feel odd. I don't remember much of what happened next.

When I woke up in the hospital, I learned I had collapsed on the sidewalk. And something felt very different. It was like my tongue weighed a thousand pounds. The nurse standing over my bed asked if I could hear her. I understood what she was saying, but I could only grunt. I had lost my ability to speak. She ran to get a doctor.


SANZGIRI: The hospital was a blur of tests. I stayed for two days, but no one could tell me exactly what had happened. Eventually, they said I should go home. It was so jarring entering my apartment for the first time. My morning coffee cup was still in the sink, my pajamas still on a chair in my bedroom. Everything, including me, looked normal from the outside. But it definitely was not.

I was someone who would sing freely doing the dishes, would debate the most frivolous point with friends until I felt I had won, would chat on the phone with my mom for hours. I had been independent and social. And now I couldn't even get in a taxi and tell the driver my destination.

I couldn't order for myself in a restaurant. And when I tried, waiters gave me plastered smiles of pity and spoke to me loudly and slowly. I had never realized how much of myself - all that made me me - was defined by my voice. All of that was gone. And no one could tell me with certainty that it would return.


SANZGIRI: A few days after I left the hospital, I started going to speech therapy. My doctors advised me to record my speech, so I could track my progress. Here's an early recording. And I'm trying to say the word. And I'm trying to say the word July.


SANZGIRI: (Unintelligible).

It was excruciating to struggle that way over simple English words. I realized it might be easier to listen to myself stumbling over something harder, like a foreign language.


ROSIN: After the break, Leena's story continues.

SANZGIRI: My mom came to stay with me in New York while my dad was working abroad. She's the rock of our family, the center of calm, which was mostly necessary at that time. But a part of me wanted to plain freak out. And it was my dad I wanted to freak out to. He's the more emotional one.


SANZGIRI: Thinking of him late one night, as my mother slept in the other room, I took my phone into the bathroom to record myself attempting the Atharvashirsha prayer he had taught me. Here's the best I could do about a month after I left the hospital.


SANZGIRI: (Praying in Sanskrit).

Getting sick is tough on anyone. But for a 20-something, it can feel especially lonely. I didn't just lose my speech. My boyfriend, that same one I expected to marry, split almost immediately. Boy, did I dodge a bullet there. But it ripped me apart at the time.

Many of my closest friends dropped out of my life, and I get it. They were in their 20s, buried in building careers and relationships. I might have done the same. Though, I'd like to think I would have tried.


SANZGIRI: The one thing I could hold on to was practicing the Sanskrit verses on my own at night. Here I am again, a few months later, just before Christmas.


SANZGIRI: (Praying in Sanskrit).

Most days, my mother was the only person I wanted to talk to because she knew how to read my face better than anyone. We shared a bed for months. We ate every meal together. We watched hours of game shows and talk shows. She didn't look at me with pity like everyone else. But still, I couldn't bring myself to tell her about my secret recordings. Reciting the prayer wasn't my only form of treatment, but it was mine. And it was starting to work.


SANZGIRI: (Praying in Sanskrit).

For years, I never shared these recordings with anyone. But earlier this year, I decided I wanted my parents to know what those Sanskrit translations had done for me. So I went to New Orleans to visit and play them the recordings.


SANZGIRI: (Praying in Sanskrit).

SUNIL: Oh, my God.

JYOTI: Oh, my goodness. That is pretty intense. And that is pretty disturbing to me.

SUNIL: Oh, I don't know what to say.

JYOTI: I mean, I can't imagine why you would want to practice that Atharvashirsha myself - I mean, why that text, but...

SANZGIRI: I've asked myself that same question over and over again - why that text? At the time, people would constantly tell me to keep up the faith. That honestly enraged me. During those months, I was so angry at everything the prayer represents - the exultation of Lord Ganesha, the ever-almighty, remover of obstacles who seemed, to me, to be skipping out on the job.

I felt left behind by God. And I had no interest in doing puja. But now I think those late-night recitations had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with my dad.


SANZGIRI: When I got sick, my dad was working as furiously as he always had to support us. I understood that he couldn't drop everything to be by my side, even though he very much wanted to. I know there were so many things he wanted to say to me then and couldn't, and so many things I wish I had said to him then but didn't.

Turning to the text was a way of opening up a channel to my dad. It was like he was putting the sandalwood paste between my eyes again as I slept.


SANZGIRI: Over time, the rhythm of the prayer came back to me. And then eight months after I woke up in the hospital without my voice, I made one final recording.


SANZGIRI: (Praying in Sanskrit). Oh, my God. I'm doing it. I'm doing it. (Laughter). (Praying in Sanskrit). (Laughter). That feels really good. That feels really freaking good.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: One, two, three, four.

ROSIN: That's writer Leena Sanzgiri. We first saw a version of her story at a Pop-Up Magazine show here in Washington, D.C. This bonus episode was produced by Rob Byers. Our senior editor is Anne Gudenkauf, and our executive producer is Cara Tallo. Liana Simstrom is our project manager. INVISIBILIA producers are Abby Wendle and Yowei Shaw.

Andy Huether is our technical director, and Anya Grundmann is our vice president of programming. Special thanks to Liz De Lise, Ramtin Arablouei and Jonathan Barlow for the music in this episode. For more information about this music, visit our website at

Don't miss the next bonus episode and all the latest INVISIBILIA news. You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter, @NPRinvisibilia.

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